Trust Me

One of the easiest mistakes to make when reading a story is ignoring the narrator. Not ignoring what the narrator says, but ignoring who the narrator is. Like an eye witness on the stand in a murder trial, a narrator’s biases, perception, and credibility ought to be carefully criticized.

Among the most suspect narrators are autobiographers. Who could possibly be less reliable than somebody testifying to their own great deeds? Giacomo Casanova would likely be forgotten today if he had not published outlandish memoirs of his adventures and sexual conquests. Similarly, Benvenuto Cellini would only be known as a relatively minor Renaissance artist if not for his (quite literally) incredible autobiography which features not only daring feats, but supernatural beings. But there is good reason to question the reliability of even less outrageous autobiographers. Neither the Confessions of Augustine nor Rousseau are totally reliable since each man had a specific agenda in writing about his own life. Benjamin Franklin was notoriously self-serving in his public and professional life, so why not in his autobiography?

Even more academic work must be critically examined for author bias. Herodotus, “the father of history”, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Plutarch was similarly more interested in the stories of his Parallel Lives than the facts. (To say nothing of the fact that both Herodotus and Plutarch include anecdotes about events and conversations that they could have no way of knowing.) And how could Tacitus be objective about the lives of the early emperors of Rome when he was a member of the Senate that had lost so much of its power to those princes?

What is easier, but no less important, is to assess the biases, perceptional flaws, and reliability of fictional narrators. Faulkner has a habit of telling his stories through very unreliable narrators. The mentally retarded narrator Benjamin in The Sound and the Fury obviously has perceptional issues that make it very difficult to be sure what is actually going on. Similarly, his older brother Quentin’s deteriorating mental health makes him an unreliable narrator. In As I Lay Dying the narrators include a very confused little boy, a dead woman, and a young man sent to a mental institution. Clearly they are not all capable of telling the entire story.

Obviously the reader of any story cannot simply take everything the narrator says at face value. That is not to say that the narrator or the story itself should be totally discounted. Despite the observations above, not one of the books that I have mentioned is not worth reading. You can trust me, right?

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Beer of the week: Post Road Pumpkin Ale – Halloween is tomorrow, so we are well and truly into the season for pumpkin beer (and pumpkin everything else.) The Brooklyn Brewing Company makes some fine brews, not the least of which is Post Road. This pretty orange beer pours with a fluffy head and smells of gingerbread. The rich, full body of Post Road is balanced nicely by tingling carbonation and spice. It evokes thoughts of warm pumpkin pie without trying to taste like pie. It is still a beer, and it tastes like a beer. A good one, at that.

Reading for the week: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving – This story is a Halloween classic. What I have never considered before, however, is the fact that Irving does not tell the story in his own name. Before the story even begins, Irving tells us that it was “found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker”. Is the story more or less reliable because it was found rather than written by Irving?

Question for the week: This post is about narrators of stories and histories, but what about purely philosophical writings (if such a thing exists)? How much must one know about Kant’s background before he can seriously study Kant’s writings? How much does it matter which pseudonym Kierkegaard used for a given work?

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3 Comments on “Trust Me”

  1. Pictured behind the beer is a copy of Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser, a historical fiction presented as the memoirs of the titular Flashman. His tales are so ribald and outlandish that the book makes another fine example of the unreliable narrator.

  2. But do we really need to know the truth? Isn’t a good story way better? What is the point of knowing what did actually happen if all that matters and has any impact on present is how it is remembered? I do find reading a great deal more interesting when I believe the narrator. Sometimes, just for the brief moment of reading. Maybe there is just no true version because we can’t see objectively, there is always something influencing the way we look at things so even if we read something written by a completely objective narrator we wouldn’t be able to understand it properly as everyone has his very own way of looking at things. Well, that wasn’t really on the topic but that is what this post made me think of.

    • I think that is a very valid response. A friend of mine once wrote me a letter that described the butchering of a pig. At the end of the letter, he confessed that not all of the details were accurate. He wrote: “To tell the truth, I lied.” I loved how ambiguous that statement was. It could mean “I confess that I lied” or “By lying, I was able to express the truth.” Often the deeper meaning of the story is brought out by the exaggerated or even untrue parts.


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